SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Korea Bizwire) – Starting from December 15, a significant relaxation of existing regulations for remote medical consultations, including allowing first-time consultations during evenings and holidays, will be implemented in South Korea. However, the response from the industry, touted as beneficiaries of these changes, is not as positive as anticipated.
The prevailing sentiment stems from the perception that the core issue of “medication delivery” remains unresolved, hindering the effectiveness of these changes, while some have also questioned the efficacy of remote medical consultation in general and the overall impact the changes could have on the healthcare system.
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare on December 6, supplemental measures for the remote medical consultation pilot project will be put into effect from December 15. With the implementation of these measures, patients who have received treatment at the same medical institution within the previous six months will be eligible for remote consultations.
Previously, remote consultations were limited to cases where a face-to-face consultation for the same condition had occurred within the previous 30 days.
The scope of eligibility for initial remote consultations has also expanded. Currently, only residents of remote islands, individuals with mobility difficulties, and confirmed infectious disease patients can receive remote consultations for their first visit. The supplemental measures include adding areas vulnerable to emergency medical care to this list.
These areas are defined as regions where more than 30 percent of the population cannot reach a regional emergency medical center within 30 minutes or a metropolitan emergency medical center within one hour.
Furthermore, during holidays and evenings (after 6 p.m.), remote consultations will be permissible for patients of all age groups, even for initial consultations. Currently, remote consultations are limited to patients under 18 years old and only for counseling, not prescriptions.
The temporary approval of remote medical consultations, initially introduced in 2020 to fill healthcare gaps caused by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioned into a pilot project in June when the COVID-19 risk level was downgraded.
In the process of transitioning to the pilot project, restrictions were imposed, allowing remote consultations only for follow-up visits, and excluding vulnerable groups, unlike during the COVID-19 period. Due to these limitations and the complexity of distinguishing between initial and follow-up consultations, many remote medical consultation platform companies have either downsized their services or shifted their business focus.
Considering a substantial number of remote medical consultation patients are first-time visitors, and the difficulty in distinguishing between initial and follow-up visits, the current guidelines made normal business operations for these companies impractical.
The recent supplemental measures have taken into account the opinions of remote medical consultation companies facing a crisis due to these regulations.
Not everyone, however, is in favor of the change in policy. Medical associations have criticized the government’s initiatives as “destructive to the existing medical infrastructure,” arguing that promoting remote consultations would increase the risk of misdiagnosis, with the consequences falling squarely on patients and potential legal responsibilities shifting to healthcare providers.
The Free Medical Care Movement, a coalition of more than 40 civic groups, has also criticized the new legislation, urging the government to suspend the pilot project. “Remote medical consultations that allow a significant increase in initial visits for the profit of remote medical platform companies will only increase patient medical expenses and health insurance expenditures,” the organization said in statement.
Nonetheless, while some industry players remain cautiously optimistic about the success of the pilot project, a significant hurdle remains unaddressed – the issue of medication delivery. Even with remote consultations, users are still required to physically visit a pharmacy to obtain prescribed medications, making the service appear incomplete.
Furthermore, the limited number of pharmacies open during holidays and evenings is an additional challenge. Currently, only 39 percent of pharmacies operate after 8 p.m., and only 15 percent of pharmacies are open on Sundays.
This has prompted industry voices to suggest that for remote medical consultations to truly gain traction, South Korea needs to follow the lead of major overseas countries by allowing medication deliveries.
According to the Remote Medical Industry Association, among the G7 nations and 38 OECD countries, 36 countries permit the delivery of prescription medications. Japan, for instance, allows the purchase of general medicine online and remote prescription drug guidance with delivery. France also delivers medication via courier services.
Patient accessibility involves connecting to pharmacy websites or private delivery companies through mobile devices or computers, placing an order for delivery, and transmitting prescriptions through scans or other means.
Kevin Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)